Return to work from illness or injury in a remote work setting

Best practices for transitioning employees back to work from an illness or injury while they are working from home.

27 October 2020

Working remotely (work from home) presents many unique challenges to the employee and the supervisor (see HRS tip sheet – Working Remotely). Additional complexities may arise when an employee is returning to work from an illness or injury leave. Support a successful return to work during or after illness by recognizing the challenges of remote work, being empathetic and understanding with your employee, and by following a coordinated process that involves the employee, their direct supervisor and the Return to Work Consultant or Homewood Health Support Consultant.

Return-to-work planning is initiated in one of two ways:

  • Homewood Health Support Consultant will coordinate straightforward (full hours and duties) resumption of work directly with the work site.
  • Complex return-to-work plans with modified hours and/or duties are managed with a U of A return to work consultant.

Best practices

  • Recognize that different people have different needs and will respond uniquely to working from home. Most staff have years of experience that has shaped behaviours, expectations and understandings relative to the traditional work setting. Working from home is an abrupt change to these known patterns. Returning from illness/injury may amplify issues. Take their concerns and fears seriously. Demonstrate understanding and commitment to working with them.
  • Be empathetic with your employee and their needs. Listen carefully, ask questions, and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Recognize that they may encounter a range of emotions in planning and implementing a return-to-work plan. It is normal to feel emotions such as anxiety, nervousness and excitement as well as sadness, fear and detachment. Acknowledge how a person is feeling and express your commitment to supporting them through this.
  • Allow for a very gradual pace of increasing work expectations, even if the employee is coming back with no restrictions or limitations. It will take time to establish the home office area, develop a new workflow and iron out wrinkles. This process may be further extended during a gradual return to work.
  • Be flexible “We have always done it that way” may not work in a remote setting and may not truly reflect what is possible or the best solution for a unique situation.
  • Schedule time to review progress/needs. Connecting with the employee two or three times per week over the first two to three weeks is important. Be curious about how they are managing – ask what is working and what is challenging. Collaboratively problem-solve issues (understand the issues, gather their ideas, present your own ideas and jointly come to a conclusion on the best solution). Avoid comparisons – their home and their situation is unique. Flexibility and understanding is critical.
  • Connect with your employee using video conferencing when possible. Seeing someone is humanizing and can give important clues as to how they are managing and if they are improving over time.
    Acknowledge that there may be an ebb and flow of emotions during a gradual return to work – there will be good days and not-so-good days. Demonstrating care and understanding will often help them stabilize and improve.
  • Celebrate small wins and always recognize effort. Treat the first several weeks as a work in progress as they settle into a new way of being. Remember that working from home is complicated and challenging. Taking the time and being reasonable will reward you in the long run.
  • Do not ask about their medical condition or medical treatment. It is reasonable to ask how they are managing or how they are feeling today as this can open a general conversation into areas where they may be struggling. It will also help you understand their progress over time and allow for problem solving if issues arise.
  • As the return to work progresses, continue to discuss the challenges and benefits of working from home. These will shift over time and it is important to understand their evolution and impact on work, and actively engage in problem solving.
  • Remain in contact with your return to work consultant (gradual hours/duties) or Homewood Health Support Consultant (full hours and duties) if you are encountering concerning behaviour. Refer your employee to an appropriate resource, listed below, if they appear to be struggling.
  • Formal performance management is not engaged in during a gradual return to work. It is important to set realistic expectations within the context of a recovery process and working from home. Patiently discuss variance from expectations. Be open and willing to adjust expectations based on what is being demonstrated.
  • Make the effort to have regular scheduled contact (weekly) with remote staff after completion of the return to work phase. Working from home does not naturally allow for the “micro meetings” (seeing staff in the hallway; waiting for an elevator; in the lunchroom) that working in an office provides. To the observant supervisor, these micro meetings can provide an important window into how the person is managing and if things may be going off track. Regular video or phone contact is a good substitute.


For further information or questions, please email or call 780-492-0636.